August 20, 2011
Three men doing time in Israeli prisons recently appeared before a parole board consisting of a judge, a criminologist and a social worker. The three prisoners had completed at least two-thirds of their sentences, but the parole board granted freedom to only one of them. Guess which one:
Case 1 (heard at 8:50 a.m.): An Arab Israeli serving a 30-month sentence for fraud.
Case 2 (heard at 3:10 p.m.): A Jewish Israeli serving a 16-month sentence for assault.
Case 3 (heard at 4:25 p.m.): An Arab Israeli serving a 30-month sentence for fraud.
There was a pattern to the parole board’s decisions, but it wasn’t related to the men’s ethnic backgrounds, crimes or sentences. It was all about timing, as researchers discovered by analyzing more than 1,100 decisions over the course of a year. Judges, who would hear the prisoners’ appeals and then get advice from the other members of the board, approved parole in about a third of the cases, but the probability of being paroled fluctuated wildly throughout the day. Prisoners who appeared early in the morning received parole about 70 percent of the time, while those who appeared late in the day were paroled less than 10 percent of the time.
The odds favored the prisoner who appeared at 8:50 a.m. — and he did in fact receive parole. But even though the other Arab Israeli prisoner was serving the same sentence for the same crime — fraud — the odds were against him when he appeared (on a different day) at 4:25 in the afternoon. He was denied parole, as was the Jewish Israeli prisoner at 3:10 p.m, whose sentence was shorter than that of the man who was released. They were just asking for parole at the wrong time of day.
There was nothing malicious or even unusual about the judges’ behavior, which was reported earlier this year by Jonathan Levav of Stanford and Shai Danziger of Ben-Gurion University. The judges’ erratic judgment was due to the occupational hazard of being, as George W. Bush once put it, “the decider.” The mental work of ruling on case after case, whatever the individual merits, wore them down. This sort of decision fatigue can make quarterbacks prone to dubious choices late in the game and C.F.O.’s prone to disastrous dalliances late in the evening. It routinely warps the judgment of everyone, executive and nonexecutive, rich and poor — in fact, it can take a special toll on the poor. Yet few people are even aware of it, and researchers are only beginning to understand why it happens and how to counteract it.
Decision fatigue helps explain why ordinarily sensible people get angry at colleagues and families, splurge on clothes, buy junk food at the supermarket and can’t resist the dealer’s offer to rustproof their new car. No matter how rational and high-minded you try to be, you can’t make decision after decision without paying a biological price. It’s different from ordinary physical fatigue — you’re not consciously aware of being tired — but you’re low on mental energy. The more choices you make throughout the day, the harder each one becomes for your brain, and eventually it looks for shortcuts, usually in either of two very different ways. One shortcut is to become reckless: to act impulsively instead of expending the energy to first think through the consequences. (Sure, tweet that photo! What could go wrong?) The other shortcut is the ultimate energy saver: do nothing. Instead of agonizing over decisions, avoid any choice. Ducking a decision often creates bigger problems in the long run, but for the moment, it eases the mental strain. You start to resist any change, any potentially risky move — like releasing a prisoner who might commit a crime. So the fatigued judge on a parole board takes the easy way out, and the prisoner keeps doing time.
Decision fatigue is the newest discovery involving a phenomenon called ego depletion, a term coined by the social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister in homage to a Freudian hypothesis. Freud speculated that the self, or ego, depended on mental activities involving the transfer of energy. He was vague about the details, though, and quite wrong about some of them (like his idea that artists “sublimate” sexual energy into their work, which would imply that adultery should be especially rare at artists’ colonies). Freud’s energy model of the self was generally ignored until the end of the century, when Baumeister began studying mental discipline in a series of experiments, first at Case Western and then at Florida State University.
These experiments demonstrated that there is a finite store of mental energy for exerting self-control. When people fended off the temptation to scarf down M&M’s or freshly baked chocolate-chip cookies, they were then less able to resist other temptations. When they forced themselves to remain stoic during a tearjerker movie, afterward they gave up more quickly on lab tasks requiring self-discipline, like working on a geometry puzzle or squeezing a hand-grip exerciser. Willpower turned out to be more than a folk concept or a metaphor. It really was a form of mental energy that could be exhausted. The experiments confirmed the 19th-century notion of willpower being like a muscle that was fatigued with use, a force that could be conserved by avoiding temptation. To study the process of ego depletion, researchers concentrated initially on acts involving self-control — the kind of self-discipline popularly associated with willpower, like resisting a bowl of ice cream. They weren’t concerned with routine decision-making, like choosing between chocolate and vanilla, a mental process that they assumed was quite distinct and much less strenuous. Intuitively, the chocolate-vanilla choice didn’t appear to require willpower…
August 20, 2011
A framework for what motivates rigidity among politicians helps explain the current debt ceiling debate and suggests how to resolve it.
Politicians: They’re slick and soulless, shifting positions shamelessly to stay ahead of public opinion. Unless they’re ridiculously rigid and inflexible, sticking to their principles even when doing so courts disaster.
Unfair clichés? To be sure. But in rough, unsophisticated terms, these stereotypes delineate the extreme ends of our Congressional continuum. They’re reminders that even politicians from the same party, who advocate the same policies, can have dramatically different personalities.
One political scientist argues this often-overlooked truth can help explain our elected representatives’ behavior and even help resolve deadlocks such as the current debt-ceiling standoff. As Jonathan Keller of James Madison University points out, you probably can’t change someone’s mind until you understand how they derive their sense of self-esteem.
“When a situation arises that arouses a leader’s core sources of self-validation — the criteria by which one judges one’s worth as a political leader — the leader becomes willing to endure enormous political opposition and policy setbacks in order to remain faithful to the policy that has become identified with their self-worth,” Keller writes in a 2009 paper titled “Explaining Rigidity and Pragmatism in Political Leaders“, published in the journal Political Psychology.
This dynamic helps explain the rigidity of thought we’ve been witnessing in recent weeks among members of Congress. For many, bending would mean betraying their own sense of who they are and why they’re in office.
But that doesn’t mean we’re doomed to eternal gridlock. It means those trying to strike a bargain need to a) understand what motivates individual members, and b) reframe issues so that less-extreme positions are no longer a threat to their sense of self-worth.
“Rigidity expresses itself differently in leaders with different sources of self-validation,” Keller writes. “Leaders who are internally validated — those whose primary source of self-validation is faithful adherence to an ideology or mission — will adhere rigidly to those policy options they perceive are necessary … and will exhibit insensitivity to a) political opposition to those policies; and b) information suggesting those policies are failing.”
Sound at all familiar?
In contrast, other political leaders are externally validated; their key source of self-worth is the approval of others, such as constituents or leaders of their party. These elected officials — Bill Clinton is commonly cited as an example — are “more concerned about listening to these other voices and fashioning their policies in such a way as to achieve and maintain the support of those actors,” he writes.
Keller’s analysis focuses on Ronald Reagan, whose writings (including his personal diaries) suggest he was strongly driven by internal validation — which is to say, a sense of mission. “Once Reagan had defined the issues in ways that implicated his self-worth, he was willing to change course only within a narrowly circumscribed range of options, and exhibited striking insensitivity to political opposition and unpleasant data,” he writes.
Keller notes that Reagan was steadfastly opposed to raising taxes but ultimately did so when he was presented with an offer he couldn’t refuse: a proposal that called for $3 of budget reductions for every dollar of tax increases.
“Faced with extraordinary political pressure, and believing that the tax increase was the only way to achieve his goal of reducing federal spending, Reagan agreed (to the compromise), convincing himself that the tax increase merely closed loopholes in his original tax bill,” he writes.
As biographer Lou Cannon wrote of Reagan: “He was enough of a true believer to demand consistency in himself, a trait that encouraged aides to invent arguments designed to persuade him that proposals in conflict with his advocacies actually advanced them.”
Keller noted that the current circumstances aren’t precisely the same as those he describes in his paper. While he focused on presidents (including Woodrow Wilson and his support for the doomed League of Nations), “the current situation probably involves group dynamics that make things more complex,” he wrote…
August 20, 2011
In assembling his art collection, Barnes outsmarted the world. In crafting his foundation, Barnes outsmarted himself.
Albert Coombs Barnes was a brilliant man. As a student, Barnes emerged from one of Philadelphia’s toughest neighborhoods, eventually earning a medical degree from the University of Pennsylvania and studying chemistry in Germany. As an entrepreneur, he made a fortune through the mass production of anti-blindness medicine. As a businessman, he timed the sale of his business perfectly, selling at the peak of a surging market. As an art enthusiast, he amassed one of the world’s finest collections of post-Impressionist and early modern paintings. As a philanthropist, he created a school—not a museum—where some of the world’s finest works of modern and post-Impressionist painting were studied in strict accordance with Barnes’ self-designed pedagogical principles.
All in all, the same brilliance that created a legacy for Albert Barnes would ultimately undo his legacy. Since the time of Barnes’ death in an automobile accident in 1951, the Barnes Foundation has been a case study in how an institution, created by a brilliant mind with clear intentions, can become irrevocably damaged through overly restrictive operating guidelines, unanticipated leadership problems, and the competing missions of other organizations and institutions. Much attention has been paid to the forces at work against the foundation, but in fact the seeds of destruction were sown by the hands of Barnes himself. As history has proven, decisions he made in life imperiled the perpetuity of his collection after death.
Barnes made every effort to preserve the vision of his creation after his death. For the past 60 years, what we have seen at the Barnes is what Barnes put there himself. At this moment, however, Barnes’ art collection is being removed forever from the walls he built for it. Barnes knew he was creating something unique in the annals of American art. He was also right that outside forces would emerge to alter his project after his death. What he never anticipated was that the very defenses he put in place to preserve his collection would eventually contribute to its undoing.
The rise of Albert Barnes is an only-in-America success story. For decades, it has fascinated biographers like William Schack (Art and Argyrol), Howard Greenfeld (The Devil and Dr. Barnes), and John Anderson (Art Held Hostage). Each of these biographies is instructive, and on one essential point, they all agree. Barnes was a conflicted figure, a man of titanic intelligence, unflinching will, and self-destructive pride.
John Barnes, Albert’s father, had been a butcher before the Civil War. Four months after enlisting in the Union Army, he lost his right arm at the Battle of Cold Harbor. Deprived of his trade, he made ends meet with a veteran’s pension and a job as a letter carrier. He settled in the Kensington neighborhood of Philadelphia, where he married and had four boys. Kensington was—and is—a hard, working-poor neighborhood, the home of Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa. Boys learn early on to become street fighters. Barnes certainly did.
Lydia Barnes, Albert’s mother, came from hearty Germanic stock. She introduced her sons to painting, and encouraged them to take up music. A devout Methodist, she took young Albert to African-American camp meetings and revivals, where the eight-year-old boy was deeply moved by gospel music and spirituals. But perhaps most importantly, she encouraged Albert to excel in his studies. He earned a spot at Philadelphia’s prestigious Central High School, and later, a scholarship at the University of Pennsylvania. Barnes put himself through college by tutoring, boxing, and playing semi-professional baseball, earning $10 per game. By age 20, he was a medical doctor.
Barnes preferred research to clinical practice, and moved to Germany to study advanced chemistry. He eventually partnered with Herman Hille, a promising young chemist who had earned a doctorate at the University of Würzburg. Together, the two men returned to the States and began to hunt for new commercial products. They considered several possibilities—cheesemaking, biscuit mixes—before settling on finding an improved silver compound with antiseptic qualities.
At the turn of the 20th century, silver nitrate was widely used as an antiseptic. It was dabbed, for instance, in the eyes of every newborn infant, as a precautionary measure against blindness from gonorrheal infection, and was regularly administered for inflammatory conditions in the eyes and nasal passages. In many cases, however, silver nitrate had serious side effects; in all cases, it had a caustic sting. Hille and Barnes discovered a way to create a silver compound that retained its antiseptic qualities but overcame its caustic irritation. They submitted the product for clinical trials at the University of Pennsylvania, where its value was immediately recognized. The partners named the compound Argyrol. It would make both of them very wealthy indeed.
Barnes was especially good at running the business. He convinced Hille not to file for a patent—doing so would require disclosing the exact chemical composition and production process—and instead focused on waging ferocious lawsuits against anyone who tried to use the Argyrol brand name. He marketed Argyrol directly to physicians—not, as was common at the time, to pharmacists—and quickly took his product overseas. He slashed production and transportation costs by manufacturing the crystallite—pharmacists mixed the actual solution—and his payroll never exceeded a dozen employees. In 1907, five years after setting up shop, Barnes and Hille cleared $250,000 in profits (roughly $5.8 million today).
Relations between Barnes and Hille soured, and by 1908 Barnes bought out his partner for $350,000. It was the deal of a lifetime. Now the sole proprietor of the A. C. Barnes Company, he was said to be a millionaire (or today, $23-million-aire) at age 35. For the next 20 years, his business boomed; dozens of states required the application of Argyrol to the eyes of every newborn infant. Running the business took less and less of his time. Increasingly, he devoted his considerable energies to collecting art—and developing an educational method for teaching it.
“He has broad shoulders, stands an inch or two short of six feet, and weighs about a hundred and ninety pounds,” reads a New Yorker profile from September 1928. “His square determined jaw, large head, and piercing blue eyes, which take in everything about him with quick, suspicious glances, top off a solid beefiness that would suggest an Irish police captain if it were not for the seething, restless energy.”
In July 1929, Barnes sold his business to the Zonite Products Corporation for a reported sum of $6 million. He placed almost all of the proceeds in government bonds. His timing could hardly have been better. Had he held out a few more months, the stock market crash and Great Depression would have likely scuttled any sale. Even if Barnes had somehow kept his business going, the appearance of commercial antibiotics in the 1930s would have rendered Argyrol obsolete. Entering the Depression, Barnes’ fortune and his philanthropic vision never looked brighter.
Medici of Merion
Barnes first became acquainted with modern painting through William Glackens, a high-school friend and prominent painter in the Ash Can School of American realists. Glackens was Barnes’ first (and only) art buyer—in 1911, Barnes gave him $20,000 to make purchases in Paris—and he introduced Barnes to Paris’ avant-garde circles in 1912. There, Barnes met Gertrude Stein and her circle; Gertrude’s older brother, the art critic Leo Stein, became a longtime friend of and influence on Barnes. It was the first of many such trips. Over the next few decades, Barnes became a force among buyers. He was the first to recognize Chaim Soutine, for example, and news that Barnes had bought all of Soutine’s work made the Lithuanian an overnight sensation in Montparnasse.
“I just robbed everybody,” Barnes once gloated. In 1913, he acquired Picasso’s Peasants and Oxenfor $300—about $6,500 in 2010—and he picked up dozens more canvasses for a dollar apiece. For one of Matisse’s most significant paintings, The Joy of Life, he paid $4,000. According to biographer John Anderson, the most Barnes ever paid for a painting was $100,000. In exchange, he acquired Cézanne’s The Card Players. “Particularly during the Depression,” he said, “my specialty was robbing the suckers who had invested all their money in flimsy securities and then had to sell their priceless paintings to keep a roof over their heads.”
Through dogged persistence, Barnes put together what many critics consider the world’s finest collection of post-Impressionist and early modern paintings. In his lifetime, Barnes grew his collection to house 69 Cézannes—more than in all the museums in Paris—as well as 60 Matisses, 44 Picassos, and an astonishing 181 Renoirs. The 2,500 items in the collection include major works by (among others) Rousseau, Modigliani, Soutine, Seurat, Degas, and van Gogh. There are also pieces of African sculpture, Asian prints, medieval manuscripts, decorative metalwork, as well as Old Master paintings, including works by El Greco, Peter Paul Rubens, and Titian…
August 20, 2011
This image has been posted with express written permission. This cartoon was originally published at Town Hall.